Hi Everyone, Warning! Don’t eat and drive! Yeah, I know that it’s different from the familiar ‘Don’t Drink and Drive’ but I tell you, this should be a label attached to all Christmas black cakes. This is a deep, dark and dangerously intoxicating cake that can make you wobbly at the knees just by smelling it.
Black cake, dark cake, rum cake, Christmas cake, call it what you will, the holidays would not be the same without it, just they would not be without ham, sorrel, pepper-pot or garlic pork.
Throughout the Caribbean, we each have our own versions of black cake. Some make it not only as part of the Christmas tradition but also for weddings, christenings and other significant occasions. What makes it “our” black cake is defined by the rum used. In other words, it is Barbadian black cake because it is made with Barbadian rum or Jamaica’s because it is made with their rum and so it goes for each country.
Our lives revolve around rituals; it’s Christmas and it’s time for the ritual of making black cake. We start by “setting” the fruits. By “setting” the fruits, we mean blending or chopping them and soaking the mixture in various alcoholic beverages so that they can absorb the flavours of the alcohol and be cured.
The dried fruits, raisins, currants, prunes, dates, cherries, and mixed peel are all ground together and soaked with one or a combination of these alcoholic beverages – rum, port wine, cherry brandy and, for Barbadians, Falernum.
When to set the fruits and for how long? Some of us follow the tradition of our parents and grandparents and others do what’s convenient for them. Purely by accident (or maybe not), I follow the tradition of my mother by soaking fruits a year in advance. I always buy more fruit than I need and by the time I’m finished blending, soaking and baking, I have an extra bottle of alcohol infused fruits. Every year, I make a new batch to replace the one I am going to use.
I have a friend who always has some left over from baking and whenever she can, she will grind some fruits and add it to the bottle, always topping it up. By the time Christmas rolls around, she has fruits that have been marinating for a long long time.
Frankly, (unless you are an aficionado with a degree in black cake-ology) I don’t think that many people can tell the difference between a black cake that’s had it fruits soaked for a year and one that’s been soaking for only a few days. But rituals are special, and you know when you serve your black cake someone who fancies them self an expert will ask you, “So how long did you set your fruits?” And woe betides you if you don’t have a good answer. Enjoyed traditionally with an ice-cold glass of ginger beer or sorrel, it is truly one of the pleasures of the season.
Setting fruits for cake is only one of the many rituals when it comes to preparing for Christmas. We are known for “breaking up” the house. All the curtains are taken down, every stick of furniture is pushed far to the corners and covered, and rugs are rolled away, all in preparation for the biggest, deepest clean of the year. Each and every child resentfully learns what hard work means for the one to two weeks as walls are wiped, cupboards scrubbed, silver cleaned, china washed, cushions and chairs re-upholstered. For that period it looks like the house has been hit by a bomb. But, in the end, when everything looks clean and new and all the Christmas decorations are up, you can sit back and enjoy the beauty of your home as you munch on your black cake.
Growing up, in our home, my mother insisted that the house be finished decorating by December 15 because we are Roman Catholics and December 15, marks the beginning of Novena – nine consecutive days of devotion and prayer, in this case, leading up to Christmas. It is a tradition I uphold to date. Apart from the significance of the occasion, mom’s justification was that she wanted to admire and revel in the delights of her home. There’s no way she’d she stressing herself out on Christmas Eve to clean, decorate, and prepare for the big meal the next day. Maybe I am biased but I agree. I don’t want to be exhausted on Christmas day; I don’t want midnight to find me putting up curtains. I want to be curled up in bed fast asleep or in a comfortable chair basking in the warmth of the fairy lights with a glass of sherry to toast the new day.
I’ll forever cherish the memories of Christmas Eve night mass at Sacred Heart Church (burnt down on Christmas morning in 2005) where there would be a re-enactment of the nativity, complete with elaborate costumes, two choirs, “Kings” that could actually sing and a real baby to play the part of Jesus!
I enjoy Christmas Eve more than Christmas day itself, there is something electrifying about the day, something magical as the hours and minutes climb to the midnight hour. I never want Christmas Eve to end. When I was younger, early in the evening Mommy would always make a large pot of cook-up rice. That was dinner and also to feed the 2 am hunger we and some of our friends would have coming home from Midnight Mass.
My most enjoyable meal at Christmas used to be breakfast, well, actually brunch given that we never sat down to the table before 10.30 am In a previous column, I mentioned that my Aunt Betty and her family would join us for this meal. I enjoyed the chatter, the laughter, the teasing, and the togetherness. Equally important and significant in this merry making was being able to drink coffee, it was the only time we would be grown up enough to drink coffee. Mom never allowed us to have it otherwise, not until we were adults. Oh, and everyone at the table was also served a glass of sherry with their meal. Oh yeah!
As I sit here writing this column, there’s a pain in my heart, now everyone’s grown up and flung far and wide across the globe with their own families making new traditions and maintaining some rituals. It makes me treasure the memories even more. This year, we’re blessed to have a new member in our family, my nephew, Ethan. I look forward to the days when I can share our Christmas rituals with him. Yeah, he looks like he’s going to be a strong little boy; he’ll be a good lil worker when it comes to breaking up the house.
A very Merry Christmas to one and all!